I spent Monday - Friday last week working with asylum seekers and refugees at the Oasis Centre on Splott Road in Cardiff as part of National Theatre Wales’ Big Democracy Project. There must have been more than 20 people involved over the 5 days, with many more joining in for an impromptu bit of music, a game, a dance. What an incredible set of resilient, fun, creative, generous, gentle, open-hearted, honest, joyful, talented people. I was massively humbled, and inspired.
Gavin Porter who leads on the project for National Theatre Wales ran the week, with three passionate and inspiring directors/performers – Ali Zay, Angharad Evans, Rhiannon White. I wanted to see how Gavin brings together performance and dialogue to deepen conversations and inspire change. That alone, was interesting enough for me to say YES when Gavin offered me the opportunity to go along to the development of the next show. But the fact that it took place at the Oasis Centre, and was developed with refugees and asylum seekers made it even more intriguing.
On the Monday, after a morning chatting about identity and democracy, Gavin set everyone off - alone, in pairs or in small groups - to work up any ideas that the morning had triggered. Some worked on stories, some on songs, some on polemics. Ideas and elements of performance, groups and individuals merged and re-formed over the next few days, interspersed with games and activities to keep the energy going. Each day we shared where we'd got to at about 4pm. In the background, people started rigging up lights, sound and an enormous collection of cardboard boxes.
What struck me most was the willingness of everyone to go beyond their comfort zone, to push what they were willing to do to the edge. I'm still trying to understand how people who have lost everything could so openly and generously (and riskily) write, stand up, perform (often in languages that aren't their first), about personal hopes and experiences and beliefs and passions.
They spoke and sang about their journeys, their homeland, democracy, things that are important to their identity, people they had lost on the way, and love. Some were already confident, professional performers. Others had never stood up infront of an audience before.
Despite only having 5 days to develop a show, and the flux of people in and out of the centre, everyone remained relaxed and tolerant and creative and always ready to sing, chat, dance, play, have a laugh. All credit to Gavin, Ali, Angharad and Rhiannon for this too: They worked so creatively and supportively, but not shy of drawing lines, of providing direction.
The topic of the project was identity. As an artist, I think about - struggle with - who I am more than is probably healthy. But working with asylum seekers and refugees got me wondering who I am in deeper ways. Who would I be if I lost everything, my home, family, friends, country, job, possessions? All these things that I surround myself with are really props. Edifice. How closed and risk-averse am I, by comparison. I think of Chris. Dugrenier's work, Wealth's Last Caprice (https://vimeo.com/41847551), and Michael Landy. I think of my attachment to all my stuff. And of wanting to become naturalised Welsh. I have come on a journey myself, to find a place I can feel at home. But this journey was one of choice, not of necessity, and one of 100 miles, not half way round the world.
On the Friday evening, there was a full house at the performance. We held discussions, in between and inspired by performances, on lofty topics such as ‘what are british values?’, ‘do we live in a democracy’, ‘integration’ and ‘why is identity important’.
I worked with four different groups, each made up of asylum seekers and refugees from places like Eritrea, Syria, Iran, Somalia, and established Cardiff people. The groups, sometimes with translation to and from Arabic, dealt with the topics with no problem. How was it that there was so much openness to all views, to wanting to understand and listen to each other, in the discussions that followed the performances?
Martin Daws, the Welsh Youth Poet Laureate, who came down from Bethesda to take part on the Friday said that the best part of the evening was the discussions. I am not sure what will happen about recording some of the points that were raised, but I found the discussions surprisingly deep and insightful, given that we had such a short time to discuss. Was this because they took place in a creative environment, rather than a more formal workshop or conference?
See for yourself: here are some of the points people raised in the conversations that I took part in:
What are british values - what is different about Britain?
Tolerant – treats cultures the same way no matter who you are
Serious all the time
Being on time all the time
Proud of only speaking English
Stereo type people
Big Ben (the Queen etc)
Why is identity important - do you feel you have the same identity here, in Cardiff, as you did before you came here?
You have to build a new one in a new country
You have to change something of yourself to integrate
Religion doesn’t have to control you here: I’ve changed my character and identity because in a democracy with free speech, it feels there is more freedom so I can be more myself (but I’m missing home).
Do we live in a democracy?
It depends – sometimes 50% (free media), sometimes less than 50% (other situations)
On paper but not in practice
Built on equality, but based on status (eg House of Lords)
It’s human rights we need more than democracy
Integration - what helps?
Music and sport
Cardiff people are lovely but face contact is difficult - people will smile and say sorry and thank you but they don’t want to hold a conversation – even saying hi is difficult. Our English teacher says we should listen to radio 4 rather than try to talk to people!
Language is the biggest barrier
Oasis Centre understands our cultures and it is much easier here.
To steal the words of the Eritrean's, talking of their friends and family who didn't make it to the UK, this was an experience "I will never forget. I will never forget". I will be going to the Oasis Centre next time I'm in Cardiff. I would recommend it to anyone.
You can see all the pictures I took here (password Oasiscentre)